Research Skills: Evaluating Resources

One of the hardest parts of writing a research paper is deciding whether a source is appropriate for your assignment. Is it scholarly? Is the author a recognised expert in the field? Where do I start?

A good way to start thinking about these questions is using the 5Ws of Evaluation (Cantor, 2018).

Let’s assume we’re writing an essay on the History of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement.

In our Google search, we come across a podcast interview from the Daily Signal, an online political commentary organisation in Washington, DC. The interviewer is talking with Dr. William Jacobson, a Law professor who wrote an article on the real history of the BLM movement and the false narrative of Michael Brown and the “Don’t Shoot” meme. You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript here.

So, some questions to ask yourself based on the 5Ws:

WHO is William Jacobson? What is the Daily Signal?

WHAT relates to the reliability and purpose of the article. Look at what is included, and sometimes more importantly, at what is not included in the article. Look for citations, a bibliography, or alternative resources that support WHAT Dr. Jacobson is debating.

WHERE is this article located on the Web? Is it housed on the Cornell University site or at another academic institution? Is it in a Library research database? Has it been peer-reviewed (checked for accuracy and relevance by a group of experts in a given field)? Has it been edited by a panel or a respected publisher?

WHEN was this article written? Is it current? And does that matter for this topic? Historical sources, by their very nature, won’t be current, and older news articles, journal articles, etc. about the BLM will likely be relevant to your research. Keep in mind that scholarly materials tend to be less current than news stories and other online forums. In this example, a mixture of scholarly and non-scholarly sources might be appropriate.

WHY was this article written? What is its purpose? To inform or educate the reader, or to entertain? Consider the tone of the source. Does it use persuasive language? Is it trying to sell you on an idea or a product?

These fundamentals are interconnected. Most scholarly works are written to present information and inform their audience, so content is typically well-rounded and examined from multiple perspectives. If your source is written from only one viewpoint, why is that? Does this source want to change your mind about something? If the article’s intent is to change people’s minds about a topic, or present only one viewpoint or part of an argument, it exhibits bias. Scholarly works are expected to be as unbiased as possible, which is part of why these sources go through a peer-review process.

It’s okay to used biased sources if you recognise them and utilise them properly. An editorial about BLM from the NY Times newspaper in July 2005, compared to one from the same newspaper in July 2020, could be a very interesting and compelling part of your essay.

Other points to consider when making the decision to use a source or not:

Always know what your tutor expects in terms of types of resources for your paper. Do all the sources have to be scholarly, so from a Library database or online journal? Can you use magazine articles, podcasts, online forums, etc. – sources that are typically not considered scholarly?

References

Cantor, Sarah. (2018). Flushing the CRAAP Test https://works.bepress.com/sarah-kantor/. Accessed July 14, 2020.

The Heritage Foundation. www.heritage.org. Accessed July 14, 2020.